Land That Time (and Roads) Forgot: Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness (NM)


Of all the places in the Southwest, known for its extraordinary rock formations, that can claim the title of the weirdest and most fantastical, it would have to go to a part of New Mexico virtually inaccessible by car—the vast wildernesses of Bisti and De-Na-Zin.

Visitors most likely to make the effort are adventurers, the curious and the intrepid photographer. Bisti and De-Na-Zin are separate BLM-administered wilderness areas, spread out over 40,000 acres in a badlands setting, each with its own access road and each with its distinctive yet similar formations. These areas are so removed from amenities that you either have to do day-visits or camp out with your own supplies. There are no facilities or clearly defined trails, which means you have to rely on your own resources and navigational skills (or hiking GPS unit) to feel comfortable there.

Access to De-Na-Zin is on an unpaved road from Hwy 371 about 14 miles in to a dirt parking lot. Once you step outside, it becomes clear that at least a compass is needed from there. Except for a short asphalt path, the remainder of the area has none. The eroded shapes that are here, mostly looking like mushrooms, are far and few between—or, at least, we never found a concentration of them. We made it a point of arriving before sunset when the lighting shows the hoodoos to best photographic effect. Some people spend a few days here. As the sun was getting lower on the horizon, we were anxious to get back. I was sure to notice a high clump of trees at the start before we went wandering off. Even then, after going over many hills and valleys, we lost track of them, but eventually we spotted them and got back to the car before sunset.

For a better viewing experience, check out this YouTube video compiled by nattyntrey from a visit to Bisti.

Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion NP


The Canyon Overlook Trail is a nice, moderately difficult hike, but it’s so easy to miss. The trailhead doesn’t start from the valley floor but rather from just east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, 600ft above the valley floor. Entering or exiting Zion will also treat you to spectacular vistas as you take the winding road to reach the valley or tunnel.

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The trail, which is only one-mile long, skirts a narrow ridge winding over and past slickrock that forms all sorts of strange, eroded rock shapes, which are previews to even stranger shapes that we’ll see later on our trip. The dominant geologic layer visible all around is Navajo sandstone showing off banded streaks of various shades of orange. The whitish areas were long ago removed of iron oxide that gives this rock its reddish color. Along the way, the trail ducks under impressive natural excavations.

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

From the trail, some examples of blind arches can be seen, formed from sections of rock that millions of years ago fell away to produce these arch-like excavations. The most spectacular one is The Great Arch of Zion that you can see from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. At the end of the trail is a breathtaking overlook of the Zion Canyon looking west. In fact, this overlook sits atop The Great Arch.

Great Arch of Zion

Great Arch of Zion

Probably the most interesting and bizarre sights in the Southwest are the strange, sculpted rock formations called hoodoos, prominently featured at Bryce. But the handiwork of wind and water erosion is everywhere to be seen, taking on various, sometimes fantastical shapes depending on the sandstone material with which natural forces had to work. Even here at Zion, consisting mostly of the very hard Navajo sandstone, these outcroppings, shaped vaguely like mushrooms, are thought to have been created when a stupendous geologic force lifted up the plateau and gave water a faster, more forceful route to lower elevations. Smoothed over millions of years, these formations are a wonder to behold.

Aside from the spectacular geology, we also came across local flora and fauna.

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Cedar Breaks National Monument (UT)


Indian paintbrush

Situated in the middle of Dixie National Forest, Cedar Breaks National Monument is a testament to the forces of uplift and erosion. It shares the visual splendor of Bryce Canyon National Park not too far away, but it stands 2,000 ft higher in elevation at over a breathtaking 10,000 ft above sea level. Although both places were linked at one time, a gigantic fault separated them millions of years ago. Hiking at this altitude, even over mild elevation changes, is an exercise in breathing labor. Along certain sections, we were forced to stop, huffing and puffing, to catch our breath almost every 20 steps or so. If you haven’t acclimatized over a few days, you could suffer headaches and nausea.

From the rim trail, the only established one in the monument, you can get spectacular views, not only from the viewpoints but along the trail as well, of the hoodoos, fins, columns and spires in variegated pastel colors that are the hallmark of these unique formations.

Juniper roots itself over rock

Hoodoos

Goblin Valley State Park (UT)


Mushroom-shaped hoodoos populate Goblin Valley

Mushroom-shaped hoodoos populate Goblin Valley

Of all the strange shapes found throughout the Southwest, some of the most whimsical are found in Goblin Valley State Park. Think toadstools and you’ll get an idea what to expect. These hoodoos are a result of the erosion of the reddish Entrada sandstone deposits that collected in tidal flats. There are no established trails in the limited area of the state park where these rocks are concentrated. Even if you go exploring far and wide through the area, you can always find your way back to the parking lot by heading for the covered picnic area which sits on higher ground, visible from almost anywhere. Here is where we stopped for a lunch break before moving on to Moab.

There are no established trails here. Wild Horse Butte lies on the horizon.

There are no established trails here. Wild Horse Butte lies on the horizon.

Bryce Canyon National Park (UT)


On the afternoon of our arrival, along the Bryce Canyon scenic drive, the temperature was in the 40s and a stiff wind was stinging our faces and blowing dust and sand into our eyes. Snow was clearly visible on the higher slopes. Sound like vacation in the winter? Only a few hours earlier we were basking in sunshine along the Cottonwood Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante, not more than 30 miles away. What gives?

Bryce Canyon National Park sits almost at the top of the Grand Staircase, part of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, which towers over 8,000 feet above sea level. Consequently, it is much younger (geologically speaking) than the escarpments below it far to the south and east. Only Aquarius Plateau sits higher (another 2,000 ft!). At these high elevations, Bryce stays colder here than almost anywhere in the Southwest. As for the wind, it’s not unusual for canyon country to experience howling winds.

In spite of colder temperatures and high elevations, Bryce Canyon draws a considerable number of tourists. Its main attractions are the limestone pinnacles (known as hoodoos) that are everywhere in the park. They are carved by eons of water erosion. Pinnacles have their start as narrow fins that erode over long periods of time. The Paiutes believe that the hoodoos are the Legend People, a human-animal hybrid who were eternally frozen in stone.

Hoodoos seen from Agua Canyon overlook

Hoodoos seen from Agua Canyon overlook

The scenic drive is what most visitors confine themselves to when experiencing the park. Armies of buses and cars ply the paved road that stretches some 18 miles from the visitor center to Yovimpa Point at the southern end. During peak summer months, shuttles provide a more convenient and less stressful way of getting about. The overlooks reveal the majestic hoodoo formations from above, like a million minarets packed into the hillsides. On a sunny day, they glow brilliantly and never fail to enchant the beholder. But, they are at their spectacular best at sunrise and sunset when the colors assume richer tones and the shadows provide mysterious contrast. Each overlook has its unique display, but if you want to get a good look at much of the vast Grand Staircase on a clear day, go to Yovimpa Point at the southern end of the drive from where it is possible to see all the way down to the treeline on the Kaibab Plateau (the north rim of the Grand Canyon).

Wall Street positively glows at noon on a sunny day

Wall Street positively glows at noon on a sunny day

To experience Bryce intimately, you’ll need to do some hiking below the canyon rim. The hordes of people at the overlooks virtually disappear when you take even the shortest hikes. If you want to limit yourself to one relatively easy hike with a huge payoff, definitely do part of the Navajo Loop, which starts at the Sunset Point overlook, by walking down to Wall Street at around noon. The hike drops in elevation fairly quickly, a series of switchbacks that descend over 500 feet. Shortly, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning walk through a narrow canyon between towering fins that glow a luminous orange when the sun is directly overhead. On reaching the towering Douglas firs at the other end, said to be over 750 years old, you can turn around and go back the way you came. To do a bit more exploring, complete the Navajo Loop trail and continue on to Thor’s Hammer by taking the rest of the trail past the firs. We chose instead to combine the Navajo Loop with the Queen’s Garden Trail. This combination is a longer hike and affords excellent close-up views of the hoodoos. The hike includes two tunnels carved through fins. On the return to the rim, the hike ends up at Sunrise Point, from where you can walk only a level half mile back to Sunset.

A 750-year-old Douglas Fir stands at the end of Wall Street

A 750-year-old Douglas Fir stands at the end of Wall Street

We lodged in the town of Tropic, seven miles from the park, a more affordable alternative to Ruby’s Inn. There’s not much to do here and the food is mediocre.

Ruby’s Inn bears special mention. With the closest town miles away from the park, this resort complex has everything: accommodations (Best Western), restaurant, campground, post office, general store, car wash, gas station, and even budget lodging (Bryce View Lodge). It is conveniently located just north of the park boundary. Many guided tours start here. It is an amazing, if over-the-top, complex, though you pay for the convenience. The only other, more convenient place to stay is the park lodge itself.

Part of the Queen's Garden Trail

Part of the Queen’s Garden Trail

Geology notes: Bryce’s hoodoos are composed of Claron formation limestone and softer sandstone layers beneath. The warm colors come from the iron oxide in the stone. Because of the high elevation, the weather is very cold here for most of the year. The freezing and thawing cycle contributes greatly to rock fracturing. This “mechanical weathering” combined with water erosion shape Bryce’s landscape. If it weren’t for the harder dolomite (Claron) limestone that caps the softer layers underneath, the hoodoos would be reduced to sandy rubble and Bryce would not be the attraction it is today.

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